The Apple Cart

George Bernard Shaw

This Play for Today, subtitled A political extravaganza, was first broadcast in 1975. It contains many famous faces are still stars today, and also Peter Barkworth play in the Prime Minister, as a fond reminder of an actor who sadly died recently.

This is England but not as we know it. The costumes seem like Mao chic and, except on Helen Mirren and Beryl Reid, of whom more later, are exceptionally ugly.

Tony Abbott's design though is bright and modern with the final scene in a palace that seemingly models itself on the pyramids of the Louvre with an edifice very much like Sydney Opera House in the background.

This is the setting for a debate on the nature of democracy and the monarchy but also globalisation and American hegemony. Thus, much of the discussion remains topical today, often scarily so.

However, one has to stick with this one to get to the entertainment. There is quite a lot of Shavian discussion appearing through the mouthpieces of King Magnus, played appropriately with irony far more than gravitas by Nigel Davenport, and the Prime Minister.

This then expands into a Labour Cabinet that contains a series of unlikely members led by Beryl Reid and Bill Fraser. Those old enough to remember back may wonder the extent to which director Cedric Messina has modelled these on Harold Wilson's government of the period.

After an awful lot of worthy debate about the nature of government, a light shines on this play with the arrival of Helen Mirren as the arch and extremely sexy Orinthia, a narcissist so much at home in the King's company that it takes time to realise that she is his mistress and not the wonderfully named Queen Jemima (Prunella Scales).

The final scenes of the play first show an American ambassador offering King Magnus the opportunity to become emperor of the United States in return for hegemony and a reverse takeover of his own country.

This is apparently inspired by a Corporation called Breakdowns Limited that is fast buying up not only all of its competitors but apparently the whole world. Sound familiar?

The Apple Cart builds to a climax as the Prime Minister delivers an ultimatum to his King demanding that he gives up politicking once-and-for-all.

Magnus is far too canny for that and, in a proposal that prefigures the actions of Viscount Stansgate when he became Tony Benn to enter the House of Commons, he suggests that he will happily abdicate (another good prediction) to become the member for Windsor.

This is great stuff and leads to the happy ending that leaves the King (a part once played by Noël Coward) preening himself, his Prime Minister fuming but the Cabinet satisfied, possibly in the knowledge that their own Jim Callaghan would replace his Harold Wilson before too long.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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